Happy National Singles Week: What It Was Like To Be Unmarried, Then Vs. Now

Retro woman
In honor of National Unmarried and Single Americans Week, we're looking back on single life. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

It being National Unmarried and Single Americans Week — and this being a story that focuses on exactly that — it seems only right we begin with sage insight from TV’s most beloved single girl, Carrie Bradshaw. Well, single if you're still working through episodes of Sex and The City. But, Bradshaw said, “Being single used to mean that nobody wanted you. Now it means you’re pretty sexy and you’re taking your time deciding how you want your life to be and who you want to spend it with.” And for a fictional character played by Sarah Jessica Parker, this line was real talk for both her on- and off-screen audience. Truth is, the singles of yore look nothing like the singles now posting their missed connections to Craigslist.

No Partner? No Problem

In 1960, nine percent of people had decided not to put a ring on it. Today, more than half of American adults today are making that decision. By Bloomberg.com's math, that's 124.6 million people who are unmarried (this refers more to those separated, divorced, or widowed) and single, increased from the 99.6 million in 2010. Americans aren't just putting a kabosh on marriage, but they're recruiting other Americans to do the same. They're probably not having weekly meetings or anything, but the value attached to the institution of marriage seems to lessen each year.

“The dramatic rise in the share of never-married adults and the emerging gender gap are related to a variety of factors,” the Pew Research Center explained in a recent report. “Adults are marrying later in life, and the shares of adults cohabiting and raising children outside of marriage have increased significantly.”

Pew researchers also found "never-married women place a high premium on finding a spouse with a steady job," among other factors like race and education. No longer are women looking to be taken care of by men, Fran Greene, author of The Flirting Bible and former director of flirting for Match.com, told Medical Daily. "The essence of [men and women] being financial equals is so much more prevalent now than it was," she said.

Perhaps that's a direct result of the rising divorce rate: According to the American Psychological Association, about 40 to 50 percent of couples in the United States divorce, more than double the number of couples in the 60s.

Good Vibrations

"Until the 20th century, American and European men — including physicians — believed that women did not experience sexual desire or pleasure," reported Psychology Today. On the contrary, doctors believed a woman's needs were fulfilled the minute her man's were. Ladies were deemed void of a sex drive and were required to have children and keep their husbands happy.

So naturally, 19th century women were super sexually frustrated. Their symptoms — "anxiety, sleeplessness, erotic fantasies, feelings of heaviness in the lower abdomen, and wetness between the leg" — said as much, only doctors deemed this "hysteria." Their prescription? Masturbating with vegetable oil. This, doctors found, led to another condition: cramped hands and fingers "from all that massage."

Dr. Joseph Mortimer Granville's proposed solution for the women cramping was a device that relieved their hands and fingers, or what turned out to be the first electrical vibrator. He called them massagers because they were considered taboo to talk about outside the doctor's office. Women didn't have a sex drive, remember?

Today, vibrators and other sex toys have not only gone mainstream, but a 2012 survey from Indiana University reported 53 percent of women and just under half of men are using them solo, as well as on one another. Since Granville's initial design, sex toys have become more "pleasure products," moving out of the dark corners of porn shops and into luxury retail. Some products go for hundreds of dollars.

There's a market for men, too. There are textured masturbation sleeves, vibrating penis rings, and wear-during-sex options that ultimately promote better sex. A separate survey found 94 percent of people who shop for sex toys believe they're part of a healthy relationship and when you get down to it, 60 percent of Americans just wanna have fun, playful sex, found a survey from sex toy company We-Vibe.

Less Marriage, More Sex

Up until the 60s, pre-marital sex wasn't a thing. If it was, you were reprehended for it. Yet the early 60s is when young, single women started to break the mold and make moves within a male-dominated society, found Cosmopolitan, coincidentally around the same time the birth control pill was approved for contraceptive useWomen were amidst a sexual revolution. A revolution the late Helen Gurley Brown no-doubt helped usher along with her book, Sex and the Single Girl, and eventually her magazine, Cosmo.

"I knew that women were having sex and loving it," Brown said. "I wanted my magazine to be their best friend, a platform from which I could tell them what I'd learned and talk about all the things that hadn't been discussed before. I wanted to tell the truth: that sex is one of the three best things out there, and I don't even know what the other two are."

The mock-up for Cosmo was rejected several times before finding a home at Hearst. The first issue hit stands in September 1965 and it contained Brown's revolutionary approach to a single woman's life and sexuality. Critics accused her of being "too provocative," when really, Brown was liberating the young women who felt they had no true place to garner relevant advice. If people were uncomfortable reading about how women were just as sexual as men, tough: It was the truth.

Over the years, Cosmo has become an easy target for their particular style, especially when it comes to their suggested sex positions. Yet, Cosmo was among the first publications to concede the revolution of the single girl. They were among the first to empower, rather than shame, young, single women to do what they want on their own terms.

You've Got... An Online Date

The struggle is so real for single women trying to get a date. That's as true today as it was then, but thankfully, singles bars have been upgraded to online dating services women can conveniently navigate from the comfort of their own home.

The first-ever matchmaking system debuted during New York's World Fair in 1964. It was called Project TACT and required men and women "to fill out a questionnaire, feed it into the machine, and almost instantly received a card with the name and address of a like-minded participant in some far-flung locale — your ideal match." A card that saves you from awkward small talk, and possible rejection, at a bar? Yes, please. Despite the over 50,000 New Yorkers that subscribed to TACT, creators got too busy with other aspects of their life and disbanded, writing it off as a gimmick.

We wonder what those creators think of Match.com, OKCupid, and eHarmony being but three online dating sites that have successfully built upon their original model. No, these sites weren't initially embraced with open arms: around 2005, Pew reported few Americans were using the sites, embarrased by the idea of meeting someone on the Internet. However, it wasn't long before the stigma started to lose its steam and a thousand more dating sites arrived on the scene. Some are now designed primarily for mobile phones, like Tinder and Coffee Meets Bagel. What we're saying is the conversation surrounding online dating has moved into mostly positive territory, with 22 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds accessing a site either on the web or on their phone.

Greene loves online dating. To her, sites like Match.com enable singles to reach others on a global level to connect with people they never would have met otherwise. It's convenient, and it empowers the people who think they're too busy to date. It also has a built-in screening process. Carefully crafted profiles make it so men and women can get a glimpse into the person they might be interested in approaching. More importantly, it empowers women to take control of their dating experience. Waiting for a man to pursue you, or call you first? Not anymore. "Even though it's absolutely terrifying to do, men are flattered when women make the first move," Greene said.

We know there are a lot of downsides to online dating, too. But if online users are smart, Greene said, it can be a great experience. Also, don't forget Greene's rule of three: if after three calls, or texts, or Snapchats, singles don't get a reply? Cut your losses. "In your head, thank that person for wasting only 10 minutes of your time rather than weeks or month. The beginning stages should be the best part of your relationship," she said. "If there's anxiety or worry over the next call or the next date, run, don't walk."

College Students Keep It Really Casual

First came milennials, then came the many "think" pieces on hook up culture. The culture essentially refers to how much more casual sex college students are apparently having in comparison to their parents and grandparents. However, Time reported college students are having the same amount of sex with less than 15 percent of students saying they hook up more than twice a year. Though sex therapist Shirley Zussman did tell Time that the general idea of casual sex is different.

"In the 60s, it wasn’t just casual — it was frantic," Zussman said. "It was something you expected to happen to you, you wanted it to happen, it was sort of a mad pursuit of sexual pleasure ... I think hooking up includes some aspect of the kind of sex we were just talking about, but in a very much modified and limited way, it’s not as frantic."

Perhaps hooking up isn't as frantic now that science has acknowledged the physical (STIs) and psychological risks to doing so. One study from the University of Minnesota found "young adults do not appear to be at increased risk for harmful psychological outcomes as compared to sexually active young adults," whereas a study from Ohio State Univesity found poor mental health and casual sex feed off each other.

“I think what was expected of casual sex — frantic sex — was something that didn’t deliver," Zussman said. "Because in the long run, sexual pleasure is just one part of what men and women want from each other. They want intimacy, they want closeness, they want understanding, they want fun, and they want someone who really cares about them beyond just going to bed with them.”

Are You A Carrie, Miranda, Samantha, Or Charlotte?

Let's go back to Bradshaw, because of course. SATC premiered on HBO in 1998, and by its actors' own admission, the series following four, single women living in New York City, was "a bit fantastical." For as many critics that revered the original, even bold portrayal of these women, as well as the behavior and thought processes they tended to hide, there were just as many that slammed it. Yet, like CosmoSATC was liberating singles.

These were women who had sex before marriage, who spoke about their personal life in public (usually over a cocktail), who overanalyzed the guys that weren't that into them, and who, above all, made mistakes. To Greene, each character was relatable in a way similar characters weren't before. "SATC finally said, this is who we are. We're not just a carbon copy of one another," Greene said. "I personally didn't know anyone in my life like [Bradshaw's oldest friend] Samantha Jones, but I bet there are women who did. Everyone knew someone like the women on that show,"

Fast forward to 2012 and HBO's Girls, a show created and written by actress Lena Dunham that followed four new single women living in the city. Prior to its premiere, Dunham told TIME her show was different albeit similar to SATC. Bad sex, for example, isn't what it was once considered. "The bad sex in Sex and the City was sort of like, 'It was so bad he left his socks on,'" Dunham said. "Our sex is like 'It was really bad because we’re not emotionally connected and he doesn’t want to be here and I’m scared and alone.' There are people, obviously, making ridiculous, fumbling sexual moves, but the badness is sort of coming more from just a place of being unformed people trying to connect rather than like someone committing a specific sexual faux pas, if that distinction makes sense."

The pilot episode of Girls featured overt references to SATC as a way to pay homage to the show that sort-of made Dunham's possible, at least for the characters she wanted to write. But as Greene said of SATC, each character on Girls is one single women can relate to in their own right. Kim Cattrall, the actress who played the famous Samantha Jones, thinks Girls is a fantastic show. “I think it’s beautifully acted, and realized, and written," she recently told HuffPost Live. "It’s a different story ... but we live in a different time. 2008 was a real big game changer for everybody. I look at that show, and it represents what young women today are dealing with."

Pssst, singles who have not seen an episode of SATC, BuzzFeed has your back.

Thank you, Buckeye Singles Council

Speaking of frienship, singles dipping into the dating pool no longer have to do so alone. Wingman and wingwoman aren't a myth; they're a role 69 percent of 2,300 surveyed singles haved previously played (probably after first-seeing Goose and Maverick pull it off in the movie Top Gun). Additionally, 57 percent of singles prefer a wingman of the opposite sex, a wingman that's trustworthy, allows the single to make the frst move, and talks up the single's positive qualities. 

Clearly, there's room for error in these types of sitations. So to celebrate the wingwoman (sorry, men) who do it well, Benefit Cosmetics is hosting an inaugural National Wing Women weekend. According to the company's website, "Isn’t it time we had a holiday to celebrate those nearest & dearest — our girlfriends? We happen to think they deserve an entire weekend — one that’s filled with lots of partying & primping."

In which case, allow us to tip a hat to our own kind-of wing woman: the Buckeye Singles Council in Ohio. About 30 years ago, according to the National USA Week's website, the council motioned to reserve the third week of September to "celebrate single life and recognize singles and their contributions to society."

Celebrate we will, for singledom is short but sweet for certain. That's how that Dave Matthews song goes, right?

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